Amongst the grey-brick towers, scattered rubble and glistening aquatic centre that symbolize the historic transformation under way in Regent Park, there are storefront gaps beckoning for retailers to fill out the community's maturing mosaic.
Those empty spaces, according to the lead developer, are by design. Now that neighbourhood staples take up the bulk of the 12,077 square metres of ground-floor retail space in the completed residential towers, planners are meticulously deciding on the right building blocks to advance Regent Park's long conversion from ill-fated enclave to flourishing downtown hub.
For a neighbourhood long starved of places where residents could shop since the area's slums were first cleared out in 1949, anchor tenants such as FreshCo, Royal Bank and Shoppers Drug Mart are discernible signs that Regent Park is shrugging off decades of blight and a stigma of crime that still creeps into conversations about the community. But current residents, and the ones who will imminently arrive, will need to be patient for the second wave of retail.
"This is a community that's still building out," said Toronto Centre-Rosedale councillor Pam McConnell. "Depending on where you're located, you could have empty fields on one side of you."
Martin Blake, a vice-president at Daniels Corp., the development firm at the helm of Regent Park's reconstruction, said he's facing important decisions on the appropriate timeline to introduce certain businesses into the neighbourhood. And because of this, Daniels and its social-housing partner, Toronto Community Housing, are actively screening prospective tenants on Dundas Street East between Parliament and River, along with vacant locales on side streets off that main commercial strip.
"That is always what you hope for, that they're looking at the greater retail mix and trying to create something of value where one plus one plus one is more than three," said John Archer, a retail consultant who worked at J.C. Williams Group when the firm was involved with the Regent Park feasibility study in 2006.
Now that a few basic necessities are in place – a grocer, a pharmacy and a bank – and there are a couple community gathering spots such as Tim Hortons and Paintbox Bistro, Regent Park planners are looking ahead to what will occupy the four towers along River Street, when the third of five phases of development wraps up, as many as four years from now.
More immediately, there's the task of filling the most obvious vacancy, next door to Shoppers. Mr. Blake said Daniels will make an announcement in three months. If he's demure on details ahead of that, he insists it's with cause.
"This is the challenge we have. It's not just a condominium building with one shop at the bottom. It's part of a larger strategy," he explained.
Mr. Blake said local entrepreneurs are a priority, especially ones who lean toward a social enterprise. There's an incentive for small business owners who provide value to the community in the form of subsidized rent. Selling real estate, he said, isn't about awarding space to the highest bidder.
"It's got to be about re-establishing what's missing from the community," said Mr. Blake, who speaks at once protectively and proudly of the work under way in Regent Park. "It's not about the dollar per square foot you're willing to pay. It's about what else you're going to do."
With excavators busily digging dirt north and south of Dundas at the eastern end of Regent Park, the quest to rebrand Canada's oldest community housing project has surpassed the 10-year mark this month, when crews first began demolition.
Even with the developers' overarching strategy, nothing is set in stone. Mr. Archer said putting retailers along Dundas Street wasn't part of the original plan, which simply called for a seamless extension of Cabbagetown's strip of business along Parliament south beyond Gerrard Street.
When Toronto city council approved the initial blueprint to revitalize Regent Park in 2003, it was a major step toward making amends for the crumbling buildings, racial tension and crime that culminated into an embarrassing urban-planning catastrophe.
If that tarnished past is making prospective tenants skittish, Mr. Blake isn't admitting to it. But a Daniels leasing manager who wasn't authorized to speak publicly said the issue has come up in conversations with clients. "People are not ready to trust the revitalization of Regent Park," the source said.
Even so, Mr. Archer believes the positive results so far could sweep away some apprehension, despite Regent Park's less desirable qualities. It ranks high amongst neighbourhoods in crime categories such as assault, break-ins and robberies, when accounting for its diminutive area – it's Toronto's second-smallest neighbourhood – according to city data from 2014. Its average after-tax household income – $43,038 – is well below the city average, according to the 2011 census, although that is expected to change as the vision unfolds to bring economic diversity into the area.
While the Dundas strip won't include high-end retail, urban designer Ken Greenberg, part of TCH's master plan team for Regent Park, said it will serve the residents who represent the new identity of the community, one that blends people from different parts of Toronto's socioeconomic strata.
Each of the four third-phase towers could offer up to 1,300 square metres of retail space, but that's a moving target, Mr. Blake said, as changes are made to building layout and design. "What will the ultimate number be? We don't know. It could be double what we're thinking today."
There are plenty of ideas of what should compliment the existing anchor tenants, but food establishments, including both quick-service and dining-room-equipped restaurants, are high on the list. Mr. Greenberg believes there's opportunity for "entrepreneurial creativity" as well as home furnishings, hardware and clothing stores.
"People want to be able to walk and pick up everything that they need. This is a walkable neighbourhood," Ms. McConnell said.
Twenty-year-old Ryerson University student and Regent Park resident Michael Ferguson would like to see a café or a bistro, while 65-year-old registered nurse Lilian Taviglia would like to see a bakery or a hair salon.
"I really want something to open as soon as possible so we can make more out of this area," said Khalil Rahmeh, a Ryerson University engineering student who moved into Regent Park last year.
Quick-service chains such as Subway, Yogen Fruz and a barbershop are amongst the businesses that have made inquiries.
Mr. Blake dismisses any suggestion that retailers might be holding out until the neighbourhood's population fills in, arguing that the existing towers' 95-per-cent occupancy rate is a huge incentive.
"It's not a question of retailers waiting. They're looking at what's coming up and what will be available to them," he said.
In the last count, in 2011, Regent Park was Toronto's fourth-most densely populated neighbourhood, with slightly more than 10,000 residents over 600,000 square metres. While it's difficult to say what the current population is, with so many residents displaced during construction, Daniels expects Regent Park's population to explode 75 per cent above the 2011 figure when the entire project is finalized.
"At a point where the population starts to catch up and you've got a critical mass of people, there is a rush of tenants who come in," Mr. Greenberg said.
With Dundas Street designated as the principal commercial zone, some of the existing community services that occupy prime real estate along it will be on the move. The employment-services office recently moved to the newly constructed Regent Park Community Centre. Mr. Blake said the TD Centre of Learning could eventually be displaced in favour of more retail.
Retailers didn't initially take those locations because it wouldn't have met the immediate social needs of the neighbourhood. And some businesses aren't a good fit. When food giant McDonald's asked about the spot where the Paintbox Bistro now stands, it was turned down. Chris Klugman, a George Brown professor who owns the bistro, has sent local residents to study in the college's culinary program and has hired them at the restaurant.
As Regent Park's pieces come together, and its identity is unified, there's a growing sense of anticipation that all began with FreshCo.
"A grocery store in any urban neighbourhood is a harbinger of change," Mr. Greenberg said. "It sends a psychological signal of the success of the neighbourhood."